For three years, human service planners have pursued a vision that 12 southeastern Minnesota counties could join forces to save $30 million over five years and improve services for the poor and infirm.

The plan to combine much of their work into a single unit is an ambitious experiment, watched by counties, private foundations and state planners around the country, to see whether a regional approach can ease the national dilemma of rising caseloads funded by shrinking government support.

But on Tuesday, Olmsted County -- with population and wealth far bigger than surrounding counties in this massive redesign proposal -- likely will become the sixth county to say no, at least to this plan.

The attempt to build a human services "living laboratory" also has shown just how hard it is to share power and resources when the counties are so different in size, culture, wealth and even views of the proper role of government.

Human service programs typically represent one-third of county budgets, although most of them are paid through state and federal funding.

"The programs are complex -- like health care, income supports, food stamps, mental illness, child support, adult protection, adoption, all requiring a lot of staff expertise," said Jane Hardwick, human services director for Dodge County, which voted to join the project. "Together, we can have more staff who specialize, and that means more efficient and better service to clients."

Under the proposal, the counties would reduce staff members from about 850 to 700 through attrition, conduct more "low touch" activities online and set up smaller service centers to offer hands-on help to clients with tougher issues.

But elected county officials raised plenty of concerns, questioning projected savings, worrying about lost jobs and uncertain about surrendering county authority to an oversight board.

"This is really hard work, and nobody ever thought it would be easy," said Jeff Spartz, executive director of the Association of Minnesota Counties and an avid fan of rethinking how counties do business. "I want this to work. I hope they can still make this happen in some form. With the aging of society and the basic shifts in demographics, we have to figure this out, and pretty quick."

Several smaller projects?

Even with half the counties opting out, that doesn't mean the project is dead, officials say.

Instead of one 12-county "service delivery authority," the counties might pursue two or three smaller projects, although probably with smaller savings.

Funded with about $600,000 by the Bush Foundation, a study by consultant Accenture suggested that total "cost avoidance" -- savings from what otherwise would be spent for human services in the region --would be $60 million over five years, half to the counties and half to state and federal taxpayers.

Steering committee members will meet Thursday in Rochester and "try to pick up the pieces, find out who's still in," said Erin Sullivan Sutton, an assistant state human services commissioner who is on the 12-county committee.

"I think all the counties agree that they need to change," she said. "The question is, how do we change? How do we make it work?"

That could become clearer now that Olmsted County is taking itself out of the project.

Many elected officials in the other counties were alarmed after Rice County dropped out of the project and they realized that Olmsted would have the majority vote on any decision because it would have 51 percent of the region's spending on human services.

They proposed a one-county, one-vote rule, and Olmsted County commissioners refused, deciding instead to tackle their own human services redesign project.

"In a way, our action on Tuesday may actually strengthen the project for remaining counties," said Paul Fleissner, director of community services in Olmsted County. "With us gone, maybe the counties that backed out can reconsider."

Five county boards voted in recent weeks to proceed: Waseca, Steele, Dodge, Freeborn and Mower.

Five counties said no: Goodhue, Wabasha, Winona, Houston and Rice. Fillmore County has not yet voted, but all except Rice County are in discussions about whether to create a separate redesign project.

'This is not a failure'

Among those watching the 12 counties are officials in the five-county Southwest Health and Human Services, a smaller collaborative dating to 1973 -- at 39 years old, the granddaddy of such experiments.

"Whether they pull this off in southeast Minnesota or not, tell them this has not been a failure," said Sharon Hanson, county administrator for Pipestone County, which voted last week to merge its human services into what now is a four-county consortium in southwestern Minnesota.

"These things are work, but they're worth it. And if it doesn't happen now, it might later," she said. "Everything they worry about in their project, they've been issues here."

Like the southeast region, counties in the southwest have a long history of joint projects and agreements, said Christopher Sorensen, director of what now is Southwest Health and Human Services. They also have a history of joining, dropping out and rejoining. Now the venture includes both health and human services, and next year will include six counties

"We are saving money, and we're providing better services than a county can on its own," Sorensen said. "We're still evolving. We're not done."

Warren Wolfe • 612-673-7253